We are currently experiencing a renaissance of research into psychedelics. More evidence is accumulating that point to the therapeutic effects of these fascinating substances. Chemicals like psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, have been shown to effectively alleviate the symptoms of treatment-resistant depression. Indeed, many users of psychedelics swear by their transformative properties, improving everything from their mental health to their relationships.
But when reading about all these promising studies on psychedelics, and trip reports of revelatory and spiritual experiences, there is a slight danger of viewing psychedelics as a panacea. They no doubt have incredible potential. But they cannot fix your problems. If you rely on psychedelics to give you a ‘reset’ without putting any work in, then you will come down from those euphoric heights and fall back into the same old neurotic patterns.
Getting the Message
Alan Watts, referring to the psychedelic experience, said, “If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.” As the late Anthony Bourdain opined, when you continue to take LSD after you’ve learned what you have to learn, then it becomes more of a “masturbatory” experience, rather than genuinely enlightening.
You may come to understand many important lessons, teachings, and pieces of wisdom during the psychedelic experience. Perhaps you have realisations that are personal in nature, such as the way you constantly trip yourself up with your habitual, negative ways of thinking and acting. This newfound perspective can lead to an overwhelming sense of self-compassion. You may show yourself kindness you have never shown yourself before and feel determined to add a positive direction into your life.
During the psychedelic experience, you may be filled with immense gratitude for the people in your life who bring you joy, be they your spouse, a friend, a sibling, or a parent. Your scope of concern and appreciation for others can widen until it includes every human being on the planet. Many people have psychedelic experiences that become egoless in nature and suffused with a sense of oneness. However, when asked whether psychedelics could act as a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment, Ram Dass responded:
Psychedelic chemicals have a capacity to cut through places where you are attached and clinging, to set them aside and show you a possibility. The problem is that they don’t allow you to become the possibility, they only show you the possibility. Then after a few hours, you lose the view of the possibility and you have it only as a memory. I made a very genuine effort in five years of drug taking to use that as my full upaya or way – and it didn’t work. I just kept going up and coming down.
I would be a hypocrite if I knocked drugs. At the same moment, let me point out that it is not a full upaya. And once you know the possibility, you might as well get on with it. Getting on with it means cleaning out the places that you have the attachments, not overriding them. And what chemicals do is they override them. They leave them there, they just push them aside for a moment.
Integration is Key
Integrating the psychedelic experience is absolutely essential for the achievement of personal growth. It’s easy to take a psychedelic and have your mind profoundly altered. But extracting all of the meaningful goodness out of a psychedelic experience requires a certain level of effort; an intention to process the experience through reflection, introspection, writing, reading, talking to others, and other means of exploration. This helps to clarify the insights and turn them into action in the real world.
The psychedelic experience can deliver manifold insights, ranging from the personal to the interpersonal to the ecological. However, gaining insights and wisdom isn’t going to permanently rewire your brain so that, when you come down from the high, you are miraculously transformed into a content and peaceful saint. If you don’t actively challenge your ingrained attitudes about yourself, others, and the world, then you will be left with a sort of cognitive dissonance. It is unsettling to know the truth about your potential but leave it unfulfilled.
Being compassionate, for example, is extremely challenging. Like other virtues, it is a muscle that requires constant activity in order to remain strong. It is not a switch that psychedelics turn on and leave on for good.
Integrating the psychedelic experience requires consistency, so that your beliefs, attitudes, ways of thinking, and actions align with that experience. Knowing that you’re on a stagnant career path or following a self-destructive lifestyle is hugely beneficial. But psychedelics aren’t going to make those problems disappear. They won’t supply you with a brand new shiny personality (even if they do heighten your level of openness). You still have to make changes, be disciplined, take risks, try new things, and battle fear and self-doubt.
It’s no surprise that many people go through a phase of taking psychedelics before giving them up – or perhaps combining them – with a regular practice of meditation. Different forms of meditation, including mindfulness and loving-kindness, can be a way of incorporating the wisdom of the psychedelic experience into your everyday life.
Beware of Unearned Wisdom
Speaking of the psychedelic experience, Carl Jung stressed that one of the dangers of the psychedelic experience is that it offers unearned wisdom. The risk, he argued, was that we may see too much of our own minds. We may not be prepared for what we find out. And when the experience is over, we may suffer the burden of that knowledge, and be unable to handle the necessary task of integration. In a letter to an English priest named Victor White, dated 10 April 1954, he wrote:
Is the LSD-drug mescaline? It has indeed very curious effects – vide Aldous Huxley – of which I know far too little. I don’t know either what its psychotherapeutic value with neurotic or psychotic patients is. I only know there is no point in wishing to know more of the collective unconscious than one gets through dreams and intuition. The more you know of it, the greater and heavier becomes our moral burden, because the unconscious contents transform themselves into your individual tasks and duties as soon as they begin to become conscious.
Do you want to increase loneliness and misunderstanding? Do you want to find more and more complications and increasing responsibilities? You get enough of it. If I once could say that I had done everything I know I had to do, then perhaps I should realize a legitimate need to take mescaline. But if I should take it now, I would not be sure at all that I had not taken it out of idle curiosity.
I should hate the thought that I had touched on the sphere where the paint is made that colours the world, where the light is created that makes shine the splendour of the dawn, the lines and shapes of all form, the sound that fills the orbit, the thought that illuminates the darkness of the void.
There are some poor impoverished creatures, perhaps, for whom mescaline would be a heaven-sent gift without a counterpoison, but I am profoundly mistrustful of the “pure gifts of the Gods.” You pay very dearly for them.
This is not the point at all, to know of or about the unconscious, nor does the story end here; on the contrary it is how and where you begin the real quest. If you are too unconscious it is a great relief to know a bit of the collective unconscious. But it soon becomes dangerous to know more, because one does not learn at the same time how to balance it through a conscious equivalent.
That is the mistake Aldous Huxley makes: he does not know that he is in the role of the “Zauberlehrling,” who learned from his master how to call the ghosts but did not know how to get rid of them again.
It is really the mistake of our age. We think it is enough to discover new things, but we don’t realize that knowing more demands a corresponding development of morality.
I should indeed be obliged to you if you could let me see the material they get with LSD. It is quite awful that the alienists have caught hold of a new poison to play with, without the faintest knowledge or feeling of responsibility.
It is just as if a surgeon had never leaned further than to cut open his patient’s belly and to leave things there. When one gets to know unconscious contents one should know how to deal with them.
I can only hope that the doctors will feed themselves thoroughly with mescaline, the alkaloid of divine grace, so that they learn for themselves its marvellous effect.
You have not finished with the conscious side yet. Why should you expect more from the unconscious? For 35 years I have known enough of the collective unconscious and my whole effort is concentrated upon preparing the ways and means to deal with it.
Thus, failing to integrate the psychedelic experience may not just carry the risk of staying stuck in the same place. You may feel overwhelmed and shaken up by an outpouring of hidden mental material, especially if this involves a confrontation with your shadow side. This risk further emphasises the crucial need for integration.
Psychedelics can get people out of ruts or lift the fog of depression. So maybe you’ll feel a bit deflated if they don’t do the same for you, or if they only provide some temporary relief. Don’t worry, you didn’t ‘do anything wrong’. Everyone reacts differently to these substances.
Furthermore, it’s worth highlighting that in studies where psychedelics show a therapeutic effect, they often feature guidance, support, and assistance from a trained psychotherapist. The process of monitoring and analysis also continues after the psychedelic session is finished. This can certainly be more conducive to integration. It helps to ensure that the patient can handle and make sense of the material that rises to the surface. Similarly, many users of psychedelics find that their most beneficial experiences are those which are ritualised and guided.
For anyone who is thinking about taking psychedelics in order to address some deep-seated issues, the experience should not be taken lightly. However, if you approach the psychedelic experience with respect, clear intentions, openness, and attentiveness towards set and setting, then you minimise the risks involved. Moreover, when you forthrightly work with whatever you uncover, this will help to ensure a transformative experience with long-lasting changes.
This article originally appeared on Live Learn Evolve.